ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The New Mexico Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings Thursday seeking to resolve questions over pre-trial detention rules that have become a sticking point in the debate among judges, prosecutors and others over a voter-approved bail reform amendment.
In November 2016, New Mexico voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment seeking to ensure that dangerous or high-risk defendants awaiting trial remain incarcerated, and nonviolent ones unable to afford bail are let go.
Pre-trial release rules that the Supreme Court justices crafted following the voters’ approval of bail reform have been especially contentious, with prosecutors saying the rules haven’t worked as intended. Some have said the rules create too high of a burden of proof for prosecutors seeking to keep hardened and violent criminals behind bars as they await trial.
In one ruling Thursday, the high court rejected an appeal from a woman indicted on two counts of first-degree murder in Bernalillo County while criminal charges were pending against her in another case in neighboring Sandoval County.
After weighing Elexus Groves’ appeal of a district court’s decision to detain, the justices found that the district court, in fact, has the authority to hold suspects charged with capital crimes without bond. The district courts also can take into account a person’s failure to follow court orders during pre-trial in other cases, according to the decision.
In the other Supreme Court ruling, justices found that prosecutors are not obligated to present live witness testimony at pre-trial detention hearings.
The court delivered its ruling in response to a filing in which Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez sought guidance on pre-trial evidence requirements in two separate cases — one involving a man suspected in dozens of armed robberies, and the other involving a man charged with attempted murder.
Paul Salas was arrested March 16 in the armed robberies. Because Salas also was wanted in a separate case in Arizona, prosecutors argued he was a flight risk with the ability to elude police. They asked the judge to detain him without bail.
Judge Stanley Whitaker sided with defense attorneys, who argued prosecutors needed a live witness at the hearing. Whitaker also sided with defense attorneys for similar reasons in the other criminal case that Torrez brought to the high court.
In the second case, prosecutors argued for the judge to hold Mauralon Harper without bail after his arrest on attempted murder and other charges. The prosecutors presented a criminal complaint, other documents detailing Harper’s criminal history, and video and text message images taken from the victim’s phone.